During the pandemic, many people used Zoom to stay connected to friends and loved ones. It’s something poet Nick Flynn did, though as he says in the following email interview about his new poetry collection Low (paperback, Kindle), he also used it to stay connected to some helpful poets.
Photo Credit: Ryan McGinley
To start, is there an underlying or overt theme to Low?
I think all art, maybe especially poems, are an attempt to know what it is like to be someone else. It is a chance to enter into the subconscious of an other, and to experience something perhaps as yet unimagined. Ideally, you see yourself reflected, at least in brief moments, which gives you insights into yourself as well. This might be the beginning of empathy.
But I wouldn’t say there’s a theme to the poems in Low, but the poems did begin somewhere I can name. I have had a collage process for many years, and early on in the pandemic I gave myself the task of writing a poem for each collage. This became the center of the Low. And at some point I noticed some energy gathering around them, that suggested a pattern, that seemed like could become a book.
One theme that emerged was that of home, which was also a strong thread through my last book, This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire. I didn’t realize home was a theme until I began to try the poems out at readings, and there it was, emerging in many of the poems…
Low is your sixth collection of poetry. Are there any poets who had a big influence on a specific poem or poems in Low, but is someone who did not influence any of the poems in your previous books?
Several poems have the title “Notes On ______.” I got this idea from a poem by the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, who I am fortunate to be in a weekly Zoom poetry group with (Zoom is another plus that emerged from the pandemic, for me).
I would have to say that the other poets in that group were the greatest influence on the poems in Low. I shared every one of the poems with them as they were emerging. Those poets are Marie Howe, Donna Masini, Vievee Francis, Richard McCann (r.i.p.), Sophie Cabot Black, Victoria Redel, Ricky Ian Gordon, Mark Conway, Michael Klein, Martin Moran, and Padraig. It is a fluid group, not everyone comes every week, but it has been vital.
Also, I need to give a nod to the band Low (Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (r.i.p.), whose songs carried me through many nights.
What other things influenced the poems in Low? Prose novels? Music? Paintings?
Collaboration has always been part of my process…beyond the collages I made, nearly all the rest of the poems in Low came out of some sort of collaboration — some of the artists include Guy Barash, eteam, Mischa Richter, and Pietro Costa.
I’m sheepish to say it, but the pandemic was positive, in some way, for me. That everything shut down, that life slowed, that I got to spend months with those I love, without this constant motion…it was something my psyche needed, and the poems emerged from that place.
Now, when I wrote poetry — back in the 1900s — I used to workshop stuff by reading it aloud; sometimes at home, sometimes at open mics. You mentioned that you do that as well…
I read everything I write out loud at some point, either alone at my desk, or into the zoom screen, or at the many readings that take place before any book emerges. How a poem, or any writing, sounds, is one of the pleasures of language.
Unless I’m mistaken, and please correct me if I am, but your poems are usually free verse. Or at least don’t have a rigid structure. Is this a fair assessment?
Fair enough, though I have written in several forms, if the poem asked for it. In Low, “Note on Corona (Year One)” is a crown of sonnets.
Why do you feel a lack of a strict structure is usually the best approach for what you’re trying to say?
I try to listen to what the poem wants. There are so many ways to think of structure — simply breaking a poem in couplets changes the energy, each line break changes the energy, the way the poem is laid out on the page. It is all structure, at some point.
Almost all of the poems in Low were previously published in such places as The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and the Harvard Review. Are the versions of the poems in Low the same as they were in those journals, or did you change anything about them for Low?
I think many of the poems published in magazines are not the final versions…a magazine is often a test run, part of the process of finding the poem.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Low?
Low is my third best book (that’s supposed to be a joke).
Finally, if someone enjoys Low, which of your previous poetry collections would you suggest they check out next?
Hopefully, each book is a different experience, so it would depend upon where someone is at that moment…they would have to write to me and let me know what’s up, then maybe I could direct them to one of the books.